Next time you see a drone hovering around your neighborhood, it might be inspecting power lines or other infrastructure for one of Arizona’s major utilities.


For APS, checking its infrastructure — towers, transformers, solar fields and substations to name a few – has traditionally meant incurring costs related to manpower, travel expenses, and vehicles needed to get the job done. In an effort to find ways to save money and keep its crews safe, the utility began exploring the opportunities offered by unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). In this quest, APS contributed to a new arena for the state as it became one of the first companies granted exemptions to fly UAS in the National Airspace System.


In September 2014, the FAA began granting exemptions for certain low-risk commercial UAS applications under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. Since then, the agency has received more than 15,000 petitions and approved more than 4,600.


An analysis led by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems (AUVSI) of the first 3,136 exemptions approved by the FAA reveals Arizona businesses have received nearly 100 exemptions to fly UAS in the National Airspace System. This puts Arizona in the top 10 for number of exemptions granted nationally.


“The UAS industry is poised to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the U.S. and these numbers demonstrate that Arizona businesses are eager to take advantage of this technology,” said AUVSI President and CEO Brian Wynne. “From taking aerial photographs of real estate listings to inspecting construction sites, the applications of UAS are virtually limitless. It’s no wonder businesses — small and large — are clamoring to use this technology.”


Specifically, the report finds:


-          Arizona is seventh in the nation with the highest number of exemptions nationwide at 94 — a tie with New York.


-          The number of exemptions granted for Arizona businesses increased sharply throughout 2015, reaching a peak with 13 approvals in July of that year. In January 2016, 11 exemptions were granted.


-          The total approved exemptions cover 38 different types of business operations. In Arizona, operations for aerial photography topped the list, followed by real estate and aerial surveying. Rounding out the most popular applications were aerial inspections such as those required by APS, agriculture, construction, infrastructure, filmmaking, emergency management and events.


-          Many of the companies gaining exemptions in Arizona are small businesses, with more than 92 percent of the businesses making less than $1 million in annual revenue and nearly 89 percent having fewer than 10 employees.


-          An economic impact study released by AUVSI found the UAS industry will create more than 4,200 jobs and more than $3.4 billion in economic impact in Arizona alone within the first 10 years following UAS integration into the NAS.


While the Section 333 process continues to unlock the potential of UAS technology, AUVSI emphasized that regulating by exemption is no substitute for finalized rules.


“While some businesses are flying, this current system of case-by-case approvals isn’t a long-term solution. For the full potential of the UAS commercial market to be realized in the U.S., the FAA needs to finalize its small UAS rule, without further delays.” Wynne said. “Once this happens, we will have an established framework for UAS that will reduce the barriers to commercial operations. The positive effects of the regulation will be felt by companies across the nation.”


In the meantime, APS has set out on a multipronged approach to fully take advantage what the sky has to offer. According to a report in Transmission & Distribution World, the utility will use a third-party provider to manage all specifics, regulation compliance and federal paperwork for all UAS flight operations until it becomes cost-effective to manage all flight operations with APS personnel. To prepare, the company has been training its own UAS operators and conducting a limited number of overhead inspections, including solar fields and substations.


Photo credit: Pixabay